Pirates to the Rescue: Giving the Listening Public What Commercial Services Will Not

The recording industry’s mismanagement of rights with regard to digital media has crippled what could potentially be the most fruitful age of media literacy in the history of our civilization. Instead of being readily (and legally) accessible, millions of albums remain under digital lock-and-key.

Much of the greatest music of the last century simply isn’t available to the public by any legal or commercial means. A global culture bursting with niche markets of unique and refined tastes will understandably find no satisfaction from their area “top 40” FM station, and will naturally turn to the web for a greater variety of media content. But major legal media channels such as the iTunes and Spotify music services offer very little content in the interests of these markets.

A few examples:

Deutsche Grammophon’s Avant-Garde sub-label never existed if you were to trust either of these music services.  Nor did any of the albums from the Philips Prospective 21c Siecle label, which showcased critically important works of 20th century composers for the better-part of a decade.  And ambient music fans are devastated to find not a single track of the 238 albums on Pete Namlook’s FAX +49-69-450464 Records label available for purchase or streaming from these services.

Furthermore, only 8 of the 60 massively-influential LPs from Ohr’s kosmische musik catalog are available on Spotify (not one of which is offered by iTunes.) You’re similarly out of luck if you enjoyed any of the music from the Brain label in the early 70s - the home of nearly every great Berlin-School artist and the most-active period of their works.

Numerous albums which regularly top a variety of “must-hear” lists, including King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Captain Beefheart’s neo-dadaist masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica, and countless other incredible recordings simply cannot be found on iTunes.

Classical fans are equally underrepresented. There is no option to search by record label on the iTunes service (though dedicated music fans have created a work-around site - Listen By Label http://www.lbl.fm/.) Labels are an essential datapoint for classical listeners. Likewise, the date tag is rendered useless as most recordings are tagged with release dates instead of dates of composition, and conductor and orchestra information is inconsistently-tagged making library navigation a nightmare. One classical listener shared her frustration that there was no legal option by which to purchase Cello concerto in A by Dvorak, (to cite just one example).

This leaves millions of listeners with no legal means of acquiring digital music from their favorite artists and composers. And discographic archive acquisition is a terribly complicated and convoluted task for artists with libraries in excess of 50-400 albums.

Enter the concept of filesharing. After a crude and disorganized beginning in the early days of Napster and similar networks, filesharing has since become refined and systematic in its organization and presentation of recorded materials. Single-click megatorrents offer meticulously-labeled catalogs archiving every known commercial and non-commercial release by a given performer - the best of which are sorted in a series of hierarchical sub-folders, each prefixed with original catalog numbers and dates of release.

Rally in Stockholm, Sweden, in support of file sharing and software piracy.

By Jon Åslund [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rally in Stockholm, Sweden, in support of file sharing and software piracy.

Pirates have risen to the task of filling the gap left behind by commercial music services. Some file sharing networks dedicate a section of their site to special collections where obsessive fans compile scores or even hundreds of albums best-representing a specific niche of music, and work tirelessly to organize and present the recordings in a way that new listeners can easily navigate, explore, and discover new sounds which they would never find from legal commercial channels. This is the next step in the evolution of the mighty mix-tape.

Many of these albums are deleted by the end user. Others are filed away for future exploration. A few spark a maddened obsession and resonate with the listener sufficiently to inspire them to seek out a physical copy for their personal collection. If it does, and the label owning the music is still pressing new copies for sale, they’ll make their dollar. If the label doesn’t have enough faith in the recording to offer new copies for sale, the dollars might instead go to the booming used music market. And if the music doesn’t inspire a sale… nothing is lost, since the listener would never have bought the album in the first place.

The try-before-you-buy model has replaced blind purchasing for the listening public. They’ll look for the album on YouTube, or on a commercial subscription-based service. But if those channels don’t make the content easily searchable and available, they’ll go to another source that does.

The music industry has failed to adapt to the digital market. It has failed to make it easy and convenient for listeners to explore more than the most popular selections of contemporary music. Worse still, it has failed to resolve the mess that is rights management, resulting in a market which ignores the ever-growing number of niche-music listeners. But until they do, the public has nothing to fear - the pirates have come to save us.


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